Joe Alwyn is the rare leading man who manages to steer his path just out of the blinding glare of fame. In the seven years since Academy Award–winning director Ang Lee tapped Alwyn, then acting at London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, to play the lead in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Alwyn has chosen his roles with the discernment of somebody who is far more interested in being in the right place than everywhere at once. As the 31-year-old British actor awaits the release of Conversations With Friends, though, his days among the normal-ish people are numbered.

Conversations With Friends is the TV adaptation of the debut novel by Sally Rooney, the young Irish writer whose millennial fairy tales are imbued with socialist politics, sadness and sex, and have sold millions of copies. Conversations, which published in 2017 and catapulted the then-unknown writer to cult “great millennial author” status, is the sunniest of her works. Alwyn plays Nick Conway, a married actor who is the sole male member of a thoroughly modern love quadrangle. Though the adaptation, which will premiere on Hulu this May, doesn’t take many liberties with the story’s choreography, it breathes new life into Rooney’s pared-down prose.

When the TV adaptation of Rooney’s Normal People came out on Hulu early in the pandemic, there were Instagram accounts devoted to its heroine Marianne’s bangs and the chain that glistened from the neck of her sometimes-beau Connell. Musician Phoebe Bridgers took to Twitter to profess how horny she felt after bingeing the series. (Weeks later, Bridgers and series star Paul Mescal were spotted together in the Irish countryside, lockdowns be damned.) “I just really hope people like the show,” Alwyn says, as if enough modesty and denial could work like a dam against the surge of Rooneymania that’s coming straight at him.

Nick’s charisma is grounded in his looks. In Rooney’s telling, he is described as “luminously attractive,” “handsome in the most generic way” and “looking like an advertisement for cologne.” With Alwyn’s rosy cheeks (“[It’s] the first time I shaved in like two years,” he says), floppy golden hair and affable smile, he seems younger than his character in the series, in which he sports a scruffy face and a perpetually furrowed brow. He is Zooming from a shadowy room in London that he reveals is his bedroom. Behind him are a gray backdrop and dark-purple curtains with tassels. Alwyn’s energy today is different from that of the shifty-eyed lothario he portrays on screen: He is hyperfocused and hospitable.

Like much of his generation, Alwyn was familiar with the work of Rooney, which he’d read at the recommendation of his friends and his psychotherapist mother. When the opportunity arose to read for the part of Nick, in a Hulu, BBC and Element Pictures production helmed by Lenny Abrahamson (as both an executive producer and the lead director), he was all for it. It took the powers that be, Rooney among them, about a week to decide that Alwyn was the man for the job. Upon learning that he had been cast as Nick, Alwyn sent Rooney an email thanking her and telling her how much he loved the book. He says the author’s response didn’t get into Marxism, as many of her characters’ emails do. Rooney shared the Spotify playlist she’d created for Nick—including “Blood on the Leaves,” by Kanye West, New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” and Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” among its 11 tracks.

There are easier roles than a lead who is always at a slight remove and whose defining trait is his alternately paralyzing and energizing effect on Frances (Alison Oliver), the 21-year-old protagonist. But when asked about the challenge of playing Nick, Alwyn says the hardest part was technical. The program’s twelve 30-minute episodes were shot out of order, so there was a lot of mental organization required. “All the jumping around and having to keep track was quite complicated,” he says.

Filming took place over six months in Dublin and Croatia and in Belfast, where the cast members lived in Airbnbs and functioned as a makeshift family, spending all their free time together since the pandemic prohibited extracurricular socializing.

His trick for getting into character was to focus on Nick’s vulnerabilities and pain. “He’s kind of in a place of recovery,” Alwyn says, “and he’s slightly numb to the world.” Only after shooting, when he watched the first few episodes, did he manage to step out of Nick’s psyche and view him with critical distance. “I was a lot more frustrated with him than I felt when I played him,” he says.

The role may have come easier to Alwyn than others. “We both have the personality that we don’t need to try so hard,” says Sasha Lane, who plays Bobbi (Frances’s best friend and ex-girlfriend), of Alwyn. “There’d be days on set where we didn’t speak to each other at all for nine hours, and then all of a sudden we’d be having conversations nonstop.”

Lane’s father died while they were filming, which revealed a protective and mature side of her co-star. “Joe was gentle and he wasn’t overly pushy, because he knew I’m not good at mushy stuff,” she says. “Boys age differently, they’re f—ing idiots until they get older. But he’s a kind man with good manners.”

“When you’re speaking to him you feel like he’s only listening to you,” says Alison Oliver of Alwyn. Oliver learned that she had the role of Frances one day after graduating from drama school in Dublin and minutes after being hired at a vegan burger takeaway counter in the city. (She worked the fast-food job right up until shooting started.) Having a down-to-earth co-star who “will be one of my pals, forever friends” helped the 24-year-old overcome her nerves, as did working with an intimacy coordinator and Abrahamson to plan the shapes their bodies would form during the series’ myriad sex scenes.

“There was a lot of talk about the quality of intimacy,” she says. The focus was on how each sex scene can take its cues from and help deepen the lovers’ ever-yo-yoing emotional dynamic. “Lenny puts you at ease,” she says. “His big thing is a sex scene [should] not just be dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and then boom: sex! The way he sees it, they should be a continuation of each other.”

Off set, Alwyn shared funny YouTube videos (“We used to laugh a lot at a video of an Irish guy trying to cook dinner when a bat flies through the window of his kitchen,” says Oliver). They also discussed more serious topics, such as helping the newcomer wrap her head around the inevitable barrage of career opportunities. His counsel: “Just do the things that excite you,” says Oliver.

Conversations‘ production was meant to begin at the end of 2020, but Covid-19 delays postponed shooting until April 2021. Alwyn tried to fill that time with something constructive that could count as work, if only to quell his anxiety. He suggested to Abrahamson that he work on bulking up, but the motion was denied. (Alwyn is 6 foot 1 and has the physique of somebody who has been playing soccer his entire life.) “I tried to do a little bit of exercise but I wasn’t, like, eating all the chicken and doing all that protein shake stuff,” he says.

He spent about five months in 2020 hunkered down in Los Angeles, spending time with his significant other, who happens to be Taylor Swift. “It was actually quite nice because you guys have sun,” he says. The inability to work at first took some getting used to—“It was a weird, weird time”—but he found other ways to stay productive. Namely, co-writing two songs and co-producing six songs on Swift’s quarantine album, Folklore, for which he won a Grammy Award. (He also co-wrote three songs on its companion album, Evermore.) Alwyn appears as a writer in the album credits as William Bowery, a pseudonym he says he pulled out in a “pretty off-the-cuff” manner. William was a tribute to his great-grandfather, William Alwyn, a musical composer he never met. And Bowery was for the downtown New York area where he spent a lot of time when he first came to the U.S.

He didn’t visit the States as a child. The middle of three brothers, Alwyn grew up in the North London neighborhood of Tufnell Park, the son of a documentary filmmaker and his therapist mother. His upbringing sounds fairly normal. “Every family has stuff they go through,” Alwyn says. “But I can’t really complain.” He briefly took guitar lessons and around 13 played in “an awful school band called Anger Management,” he says, laughing at the idea that any of the members had anything to be remotely angry about. He played sports—rugby and soccer—and took in a lot of theater and film. “I’d always kind of secretly wanted to be a part of that world,” he says. “But I didn’t know really where I necessarily fit in.”

It wasn’t until university, at Bristol, studying English and drama, that he started to picture what such a life might look like. He acted in “so many awful student productions,” including Shakespeare and a student show that traveled to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He went on to enroll in the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in his hometown, where he was introduced to the art of clowning, a course he says he’s blocked out because of the trauma. “You’re wheeled into a room and your classmates are standing there and you’re told: ‘Make them laugh.’ It just felt like torture. That was not the class for me.”

Midway through his third year of drama school in London, Alwyn signed with an agent who’d seen him at a student showcase. He assumed he’d slowly ramp up into a postgraduate life of regular auditioning and praying for a role on a production at the Young Vic, the experimental theater on London’s South Bank. Before he knew it, though, his agent informed him that a production company was looking to cast the title character of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the Ben Fountain novel and directed by Ang Lee. “I got my dad to film me doing a scene with some friends during a lunch break,” he says. Four days later, he was in America for the first time in his life.

His initial visit to the U.S. put him in the barracks at a two-week boot camp alongside U.S. Navy SEALs in Georgia, where he and a handful of actors playing soldiers trained before shooting. “He’s got…the greatest head on his shoulders,” says Garrett Hedlund, his Billy Lynn co-star and a close friend in the industry. The pair, who were each other’s dates at the 2016 Met Gala, text and chat regularly and last saw each other in person in fall 2020, when they met up for a tennis battle in L.A. (“He’s got all the tricks,” Hedlund says of his opponent’s skills on the court.)

They share similar concerns about their careers, like “not wanting to step into certain roles just to do them,” Hedlund says. “I have known Joe to turn down credible scripts and films with first-time directors, knowing he wanted to be with somebody he can trust.”

In the seven years since he shot his first film with Lee, Alwyn has worked alongside Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in the film adaptation of the Julian Barnes novel The Sense of an Ending and appeared as a wildly rouged and bewigged nobleman romping about with Emma Stone in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. Alwyn keeps a running list of directors he’d like to work with. The Coen brothers and Luca Guadagnino sit at the top. Next on the agenda: He’ll be in Lena Dunham’s forthcoming medieval comedy Catherine, Called Birdy, based on a children’s book of the same name, and French director Claire Denis’s upcoming drama The Stars at Noon (based on Denis Johnson’s novel), which he shot last December in Panama alongside Margaret Qualley.

No matter how in-demand an actor is, there is still plenty of unstructured downtime between projects, pandemic or not. “I can stress about stuff like that,” says Alwyn. Being in London for the past few months has facilitated spending time with school friends and his family. He also relies on books to keep him company. “I just read the new Jonathan Franzen, which was great,” he says. Next up: To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara, the author of A Little Life. As for his streaming tastes, “I just watched the Beatles documentary Get Back,” he shares. “If you’re one of the seven people in the world who don’t like the Beatles, then it’s not the thing for you. But I’m not one of the seven people, so I loved it.”

He tries to keep his private life private. Rare is the young man who can date one of the most famous superstars on earth and maintain a relatively low profile. Alwyn says it’s what happens when you don’t court attention: “We live in a culture that people expect so much to be given. So that if you’re not posting all the time about what you’re doing, how you’re spending a day or how you made a breakfast, does that make you a recluse?” He shrugs. “I’d also like to feel slightly less guarded sometimes in interviews or in whatever kind of interactions, but it’s just a knee-jerk response to the culture we live in. If you give it to them, it just opens the door.”

And even if you don’t give it to them, engagement rumors will abound. “If I had a pound for every time I think I’ve been told I’ve been engaged, then I’d have a lot of pound coins,” he says. “I mean, the truth is, if the answer was yes, I wouldn’t say, and if the answer was no, I wouldn’t say.”


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